Pew Fine Arts Center & The Lily Room: Are They Haunted?

Two legends, many different stories and remarkably, a minimal amount of documentation found on the forever-truthful Internet.  How can the stories of “Gwendolyn” and “The Lily Room” live on through the current students and alumni of Grove City College but not among the rest of the world?  Even if they are not true, the tales are worthy of attention.

MY CONNECTION TO GROVE CITY COLLEGE

My wife and I moved north of Pittsburgh in 2006 so she could attain her doctorate from Slippery Rock University (Yes, I know, that school name is AWESOME).  We were to be there until the summer of 2008 for the classroom portion of her studies, so I left my job in Pittsburgh to find work near her school.  We rented a house in Grove City, which was seven miles from “The Rock” and about an hour away from Pittsburgh.  I was lucky to find work as a campus safety officer for Grove City College (GCC), which remarkably was a 1.2 mile round-trip commute for me.  Needless to say when we got a lot of snow, I would “accumulate” many hours of overtime since I was able to walk to work if necessary.

I was worried I wouldn’t last long at GCC since I have always been more liberal-minded and GCC is arguably the most strict, straight-arrow, conservative Christian college in the United States.  Based on the student code of conduct, more than half of the major violations in the student handbook were common non-offenses at probably ninety percent of colleges and universities.  The only places of higher education that could be deemed as strict are all of the service/military academies and Brigham Young University.

As I became acclimated to campus life, I actually liked the job.  My wife and I lived in Grove City for 23 months, and I worked at GCC for 23 months.  In the beginning I was an unarmed patrol officer on the weekend nights (Friday, Saturday & Sunday) and I worked as a dispatcher for two nights.  The patrol officer secured all of the campus buildings when they closed and entered them after-hours to check for any building maintenance problems (or any intruders).  Eventually I worked as a dispatcher all five days, but during my 14 months as a weekend patrolman, I walked inside all of the non-dormitory buildings alone between the hours of 6 p.m. and 2 a.m. over 150 times.

I walked the exteriors of the dormitories as well as the female dorm lobbies, but the only time I entered those buildings alone was during student breaks and when campus was completely closed.  I used to walk all of the floors in the men’s and women’s dorms when possible to chart the dorm room numbers in case I had an emergency called into the dispatch center.  I needed to know where to send my officers and outside personnel when they would navigate the steps since many of the dorms had over seventy-five rooms.

In all of my travels at GCC–inside/outside, old building/new building, lower campus/main campus, there were two buildings which I considered haunted.  One building will not be a surprise but the other haunted building will certainly shock any “Grover” that might read this.

HAUNTED BUILDING #1: PEW FINE ARTS CENTER–AUDITORIUM BUILDING

The PFAC was constructed in two phases.  The original part that houses the auditorium, band room and art gallery was built in 1976.  The smaller music rooms and the 100-seat recital room on the north end of the building was added on in 2002.  The PFAC replaced the still classy, still functional Crawford Hall (built in 1931) as the main building for the arts at GCC.  The urban legend of “Gwendolyn” was born from the PFAC shortly after its original construction.

The stories I was told at GCC and from what I’ve read on the Internet are the same:  Girl falls off catwalk above stage, girl breaks neck and dies, girl haunts building, girl is sometime seen on the catwalk and in the costume room.

There are some stories that revolve around a female custodian that helped out the theater department with her skills as a seamstress, died and then hung out at the PFAC after death because she loved being around the arts.

Nine years after I left GCC and I have yet to obtain concrete proof that either of these stories actually happened.  Regardless, all of the custodians that worked with me during my time at GCC referred to the spirit inside PFAC as “Gwendolyn”.  We never had a sighting of Gwendolyn during my time there, but the custodians would often find items moved around or broken inside PFAC when nobody else was inside of the building.  They had no other option but to put things back in order and acknowledge Gwendolyn’s presence by speaking to her like she was standing nearby:

“I know you’re here with me Gwendolyn.  I’ll be out of the building shortly.  I am just cleaning up after tonight’s event.”

I talked out loud to Gwendolyn as well.  Items did not have to be moved for me to know of her presence at PFAC; I knew it by the weight of the building.  The air inside PFAC was heavy on many occasions while I walked around in there after-hours.  Even though the building creeped me out, I made two total rounds inside and outside PFAC between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. every night I walked.

The newer side of the building on the north end did not give me the feeling that I was being watched.  The catwalk and the costume room–the central focus of all the ghost stories I heard about the PFAC, did not cause me concern when I roamed the building in the dark.  Two areas that are never discussed caused the greatest distress and provided an overwhelming sense that I was not alone:  The back hallway behind the auditorium and the rear stairwell that leads from the back hallway to the second floor of PFAC.

There are so many grand old buildings at GCC, it stunned me that a structure built in 1976 would completely scare people out of it.  Before I worked at GCC, there was a patrol officer that wouldn’t go in PFAC alone.  When I worked the dispatch desk, I could tell that other officers would avoid going into the building based on the duration of time they spent over there.  No other officers confessed to me that the building caused them concern, but it was evident they were avoiding its contents as well.

The only way I can describe my feelings in that back hallway/stairwell of PFAC is this way:  There were dozens of times I would be walking through that area knowing I was alone in there, and yet I got the sense that somebody was either walking or standing behind me.  I would reluctantly turn and find nobody there, but I stopped and kept my eyes on the back hallway or looking down the stairwell after I made my way upstairs.  Frozen in fear, it was as if my sixth sense was staring right at Gwendolyn, acknowledging her without saying anything at all.  The PFAC has a spirit, and I guess if Gwendolyn likes you, she will come down from the catwalk to let you know she is there.

HAUNTED BUILDING #2: HENRY BUHL LIBRARY

Buhl Library was completed in 1954 and consists of two main floors and a basement.  The finished basement has a rare book room (which is sometimes used for events) and a study area with a resource desk.  It is connected to the Weir C. Ketler Technological Learning Center, and I used to secure both buildings at the same time by using the rear basement hallway.  The hallway was the main access point between the “Tech Center” and the library.

Buhl is not as heavy as PFAC, but on occasion I would get the sense that somebody was in the building with me, even though I was alone.  I didn’t have the same feelings as I did with Gwendolyn, but the occurrences happened in the same locations throughout my time at GCC:  The second floor in the book stacks and the study area in the basement.

When I entered the basement study area on occasion, it felt like somebody was in there quietly studying while I walked through the room.  It never felt like a dark presence but it scared me enough that I continued on my rounds.  Upon my arrival in “The Stacks” on the second floor, I would sporadically come across a student sitting at a desk reading or studying, even though I couldn’t see them.  When I got the sense of someone being there, I felt the overwhelming urge to make my way through Buhl as I normally would but leave as soon as I was finished.

The majority of the nights I walked around Buhl were quiet.  I was comfortable enough to stop and take books out of the book stacks, sit down on one of the couches in the lobby, read the newspapers and go to the restroom if needed.  The building is centrally located on GCC’s campus so it was a good place to rest in case I got an emergency call.  Every night wasn’t scary inside Buhl but when I felt somebody there, I got out of there as soon as possible.

“THE LILY ROOM”:  GROVE CITY’S ULTIMATE URBAN LEGEND

When somebody brought up “The Lily Room” at GCC, the stories all began the same.  “Legend has it….”, “It is said that….”, “I heard that….”.  Nobody I came into contact with at GCC knew of anyone who came across the ghost that supposedly haunts the small bottom floor of Mary Anderson Pew (MAP) Hall, the largest and oldest women’s dormitory, built between 1937 and 1961.  Numerous campus safety officers and custodians I worked with were employed at GCC since the 1980’s, including one woman who started working at the college in 1963.  If “The Lily Room” was real, I would have been taken straight to the site by all of my co-workers.

The stories found and heard on the Internet are usually the same:  Girl moves into dorm room, has perfume that smells like lilies, hangs herself in dorm room, dorm room is sealed off for (x amount of) years, room is reopened and the scent of lilies is as strong as it was years ago.

The other version is this:  Girl moves into dorm room, has perfume that smells like lilies, becomes possessed by demons, commits suicide, dorm room is sealed off, etc.

Ever further, some people state the girl that became possessed was a different girl than the one that haunts “The Lily Room”; that she roams the halls, drags her fingernails along the walls and floors, crying out at night.  Based on my observations during my time in MAP Hall, I did not feel like the building was haunted, and I certainly did not discover the whereabouts of “The Lily Room”.

When the students were away on break, I had many nights at the desk where I would study the MAP Hall building drawings on the fire detection screen and inside the building card access monitoring system.  I was searching for the once-again sealed off “Lily Room” inside of MAP.  Each time I had an opportunity to walk the halls alone, I looked for modified walls on the bottom floors, listened for any cries coming from a female’s voice, watched for flickering lights and tried to keep my sense of smell aware of any flowery scents.  It took about ninety minutes to inspect the building since a dining hall is attached to it.  After about six slow, thorough midnight walks around the inside of MAP, I never felt a presence in the building.

FICTION:  IT’S MORE FUN THAN THE FACTS

Despite my belief that there is no truth to “The Lily Room”, I hope the legend lives on.  It can inspire writers and filmmakers into creating their very own version of the events that supposedly took place nearly seventy years ago.  If these future artists need suggestions on how to capture the sense of fear for their potential project, I recommend walking to the back southeast corner of GCC, enter PFAC, lock the doors and shut off all of the regular lighting inside the building.  Head to the back hallway and roam around alone, and walk up and down the back stairwell a few times.

And while you’re there, tell Gwendolyn I said hello.

 

 

 

 

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Jeff Gets In Around 7 p.m. (Even Though He’s Dead)

In parts of 2009 and 2010, I worked the desk for a high-volume towing company that routinely brought in fifty vehicles a day.  They handled calls for various police departments around the Pittsburgh area, including the state police and crime units.  It was a twenty-four hour operation and I primarily worked the 4 p.m. to midnight shift, which was the busiest shift.  Cars illegally parked during afternoon rush hour were towed away and brought to our lot, and my lucky butt had the pleasure of interacting with these car owners when they arrived on site to retrieve their vehicles.  The stress was unimaginable at times, so I would selfishly pray for rain when I had to work since the police would not tow many vehicles in bad weather.

Years before I worked at the impound lot, there was a driver named “Jeff”, who unexpectedly died at home under tragic circumstances.  Jeff worked a swing shift that didn’t exist when I worked there.  Jeff started at 7 p.m. and concluded his work “day” at 3 a.m.  Two drivers worked the second and third shifts, and Jeff assisted the two primary shift drivers with calls concerning DUI checkpoints, violent crime units, sporting events, concerts and coverage around the popular nightlife neighborhoods inside Pittsburgh’s city limits.

Shortly after I started working the desk, I was told to “listen for Jeff” if the office was quiet.  It was explained to me that after a self-flushing motion detector was installed on the stand-up urinal in the restroom, strange occurrences started taking place after 7 p.m.  The urinal, which had no operation problems during daylight shifts would flush itself two or three times at night.  The other desk clerks claimed that Jeff was responsible for the flushing since he always went to the restroom before heading out into his tow truck.  I wanted to believe them, but I set out to debunk their claims.

SIGNING IN FOR THE NIGHT

When a driver was ready to go out for their shift, they would call into one of the frequencies on the police scanner and inform the 911 call center which truck number was coming on/going off.  This was usually after they checked their truck–doing routine maintenance and making sure they had their paperwork ready to go:

“205 to base.”

“205.”

“I’m signing in for the night…will be on until midnight.”

“Thank you, received 205, 19:12.”

About three weeks in, we had a day mid-week when rain washed out rush hour towing.  I had a much quieter evening on the desk and then I heard it:

BULLLLWEEEEEEEESHSHSHSHSHSHSHHHHHHHHHHHHHHhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh

The stand-up urinal flushed on its own.  Looking up at the clock on the wall, I noticed it was 7:12.  The restroom door was open, there was no light on in the restroom and the hall lights were on.  To my knowledge, it did not happen again that night but I knew I had to keep track of the office environment when an incident occurred.  During busier evenings, I heard that urinal flush numerous times.  We had drivers coming into the office area with greater frequency since they had to give me their paperwork after each tow they were called out for.  Exact findings were impossible to record, but when I witnessed a “ghost flush”, I was amazed at the timing of the incidents.

LIGHTS ON, LIGHTS OUT

Over the next few months I had more than ten incidents of the stand-up urinal flushing on its own.  Almost all of them happened between 7:15 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., and none of them happened on Sunday night (I was told that Jeff rarely worked Sunday into Monday).  Every time I had an occurrence, I would switch something in the environment to see if a particular light source was activating the sensor.  Hall lights would be kept on, then turned off.  The restroom lights would stay on, then turned off.  The restroom door would stay closed, then kept open.  Window blinds in the office would block sunlight from coming in, then opened up to allow the evening sky to illuminate the room.  No matter what environmental change I made to the office, I still heard the urinal flush around the corner, behind the restroom door and twelve feet from my desk space on the occasional quiet evenings that I inherited.

JEFF WAS LATE TODAY

I had a few flushes at random times after 9 p.m., and I jokingly told the other drivers that Jeff was taking a piss before heading out again.  In the parallel universe he occupied, he was probably dropping off a few tows in the back lot and he came into the office to drop off the paperwork for them.

Once on a quiet rainy evening, I heard the urinal flush well after 7 p.m.  I looked up at the clock and it was close to 8 p.m.  Jeff must have been running late that night.  I didn’t hear a flush at the usual time I would listen for it so I assumed this is why the first flush occurred so late that night.

The night shift desk clerk would hear the urinal flush on its own early on in their shift, but since I only worked a few overnights I couldn’t provide enough data to show that these ghost flushes occurred in one particular block of time.  No other paranormal activities took place inside the office, which led all of us to concur that Jeff was doing “his normal business” in the restroom while carrying out normal business as a tow truck driver.  The addition of the sensor simply provided all of the office workers knowledge that Jeff was still coming in to work the swing shift.

DON’T LET JEFF BREAK YOU (HE’S PROBABLY ON BREAK)

I try my best to listen for new ghost stories and urban legends that crop up around Pittsburgh.  I’m waiting for one that will speak of strange cold pockets that occupy areas of a particular fast-food restaurant, convenience store or pizza shop.  If any of these stories mention toilets flushing on their own, I’ll know it’s Jeff.  He won’t be there to scare people, he’ll be there because he loves their sandwiches.  But before he gets his food to go, I’m sure Jeff will head for the restroom to take a piss.

The Ghost Who Snuggled With Me

Can a ghost story be funny?  Over the years I’ve had my share of the typical scary encounters that many people write and speak about.  My father had a very nice encounter that perplexed him until the day he died.  In 2008, my wife and I moved into a townhouse that would occasionally produce unexplainable occurrences.  So of course, I will now try to explain one of those occurrences during our four years at this location.

To be clear, my wife has had at least one experience with ghosts, but at the townhouse, she claimed that she never had any strange happenings while being there.  Me?  I had a few dozen bizarre tricks being played on me there, and they all happened during DAYLIGHT hours, when I was home alone.  I know–how convenient.

In my forty-one years I’ve lived in six different locations and the townhouse was the only living space that produced paranormal activity.  The place wasn’t that old (it was built in 1971), but the structure acted as if it had a storied history where people had a tendency to “stay” even though they “left”.  Most of the hauntings were enough to spook me but not in a mean-spirited manner of behavior.  Huge swings in temperature, lights flickering on and off (while other parts of the house were fine), a woman talking (usually one word but distinctively within the walls of the house) and the feeling of being watched were occasionally observed or felt.  The most severe of the incidents happened in 2009, about eighteen months in to our time at the house.

My wife has always worked a typical daylight job since we’ve been together, but I have not.  At the end of 2009 I was working a 4 p.m. to midnight shift and I didn’t see my wife that often (Some men would call this paradise.  I’m kidding.  Really.).  I would be home alone each morning, but I would usually sleep throughout the morning and into the early afternoon.  The sunlight coming through the windows didn’t bother me and we didn’t have a cat yet to wake me out of a deep sleep just so they could put their ass in my face.  Sleep was abundant, peaceful and sometimes, unnerving.

Around 10 a.m. one morning, I woke up, but I didn’t get out of bed right away.  Once I saw the time I knew I had a few more hours of sleep to get in before heading off to work.  Eventually I drifted back to sleep, and the next thing I remembered seemed like a dream.  I remember my eyes remained closed, my arm was draped over what seemed to be a woman’s body in the middle of the bed, her hair in my face and the smell of perfume.  Not old lady perfume but a sweet, light, flowery fragrance.  By the contour of the body and the scents I encountered, it felt like there really was a woman in bed with me.  A slender, sophisticated girl was spooning with me into the late morning at the house.  Eventually I became more conscious of the situation, but I was afraid to open my eyes.  At this point I knew I was awake and I felt someone/something was spooning with me in bed.  Eyes still closed, I lifted myself up, knelt upon the mattress, and opened my eyes–I couldn’t believe what I saw.

In bed, next to the location of where I was sleeping, there was an indentation in the mattress.  There was no person there, but the mattress provided a perfect outline of a female’s body snuggled up right next to where I was lying in bed.  The smell of perfume still resonated through the room and it wasn’t anything my wife would wear.  She wears “Chance” by Chanel and that’s a smell I’ve been around since we started dating in 2004.  Even though I was frightened, I was at the same time flattered by the experience.  Instead of screaming out and trying to banish what I couldn’t understand, I thanked it.  I’m convinced it was a woman, and I thanked her for appearing to me in a loving manner.  I believed she liked being around me and I told her she can stay in the house.  But I also told her that spooning with me scared me, and that I now know she was there in the house–there was no reason to manifest into a form anymore.

In the remaining 2 1/2 years we lived there, I never had another ghost snuggle with me and the hauntings went back to the milder fare I became accustomed to.  Often I thanked the ghost for letting us co-exist with her while we occupied that particular space in time.  I’m sure one day I’ll find out who she was when I have the opportunity to walk through the invisible veil amongst us and into another dimension.

Unless she met someone else…probably moved to Maryland or somewhere further south.

 

 

 

Trixie: A moment of romance in an unlikely place

I assure you this tale is a clean one, but the location of where this story unfolded was not.

In the mid-2000’s I was finishing up my undergraduate degree at the age of 28.  I worked full-time while going to school, so many semesters were one or two part-time classes at night.  When I got to my senior year, I took more daylight classes and was easily the oldest student among all of my traditional college-age classmates.  I wasn’t dating anyone at the time, mostly because schoolwork enveloped all of my free time and the 20 to 23 year-old women I attended class with wanted nothing to do with my “old man student” self.  Everybody was friendly and I got along with everybody at school, but it was amazing how five or six years of age difference–even in my twenties still provided a huge cultural gap.

During Saint Patrick’s Day weekend my senior year, a few friends I grew up with asked me to head down to Pittsburgh to drink with them and just be Irish for a day (I’m 100% Polish decent).  I agreed to meet them in the early afternoon on the South Side just after the parade traffic let out (To this day, Pittsburgh has the second-largest Saint Patrick’s Day parade in the United States, only behind Boston).  We met at one of our favorite taverns and proceeded to hop around to different establishments to check out the wonderful debauchery at each location.  I managed to pick up a green hat and some beads from a few sponsored parties, so after a few hours I fit the description of a typical reveler on March 17 in America: Drunk, Irish and wearing costume jewelry.  If I remember right, my hat had a Labatt’s logo on it.  That’s right, a Canadian brewery putting their name on green hats for Saint Patrick’s Day.  Awesome.

We eventually encountered a large gathering complete with outdoor stage, portable toilets, beer, food and LONG lines at the “porta-potties”.  The atmosphere was awesome, but after drinking a half-dozen beers in under two hours, I had to piss really bad.  Knowing the South Side well, I knew there were a few big restaurants and bars not far from the party in the parking lot.  They had no cover charge to get in, assuming they wanted to attract people to their establishments since the street party was taking away potential business.  I walked alone over to one of the restaurants with the plan of having a beer there in case they wanted rouge pissers like myself to patronize the place (Since people like me were running up their water bill).

I entered the restaurant and immediately stand in line for the men’s restroom.  The men’s line was only a few men outside of the door.  The women’s line was another story.  There must have been twenty women waiting just to get inside the restroom.  When I was the third or fourth guy waiting to get in the men’s room, a group of women jumped into the men’s room line and asked me and another guy if they could go in with us.  We had a good laugh about it and agreed to the proposal.  At that point I looked at the other women behind the one I was talking to.  One of the girls was “Trixie”.

Trixie went to college with me.  She studied under the same major as me, had multiple classes with me and barely spoke ten words to me at school.  It’s not that we didn’t get along, it was that we had nothing in common.  She was five years younger than me, athletic and from another part of the country.  We entered the restroom and I took a piss right in front of her and her friends while we continued to talk.  I washed my hands to just get out of their way so the girls had space to duck into the stalls.  I can’t remember which person first struck up the conversation, but I do remember it was basic.  I asked her how life was after graduating and she mentioned she was in town to party with her friends from college.  We were both laughing at each others’ festive attire when something changed.

I don’t know what spurred our next action, but right before Trixie was to enter the one stall, we faced each other, put our hands around our waists and we passionately kissed.  My emotions were everywhere for a split-second.  I could hear the few random guys in the restroom playfully hollering at us, then I remember her friends reacting in shock with the sound of gasps and laughter at the sight of us.  A few seconds later, I heard nothing.  It was as if my mind blocked out every outside influence and quenched every single second of my uh, romantic moment with Trixie.

Right after our kiss was over, I said, uh, um–I can’t remember what I said to Trixie!  I don’t know if I said something off putting to her or if her friends pulled her away from me (Maybe Trixie had a boyfriend?), but the next thing I remembered was walking back to the outdoor party to find my friends.  I didn’t tell them what happened because I felt they wouldn’t believe that I kissed a girl in a crowded men’s restroom.

I never saw or talked to Trixie again.  If I said something terrible to her that day she didn’t deserve it.  She was a nice girl and I’m sure she’s doing just fine with whatever she is doing these days.  Trixie and I created no memories of us at college to reflect upon, but we shared an unforgettable, spontaneous experience in the most unlikeliest of places…unless she was too drunk to remember.

The Firefighter: A friendly haunting of my father

During the 1950’s my late father was busy running around the alleys in Pittsburgh’s South Side Flats neighborhood.  It was a typical big city atmosphere, where shop owners lived above their store fronts, everyone was within walking distance of their jobs and churches and small grocers popped up on every block to serve the needs of the community.  For a few years when he was between eight and ten years of age (circa 1951-1953), Dad and his friends would occasionally see a older firefighter walking down their alley on his way to work.

Dad described him as a tall man in his early sixties, with a full head of silver hair under his hat.  He didn’t know what his rank was within the firehouse, but based on the uniform he could tell he was one of the chiefs (There are a few of them in the United States anyway).  When the man was wearing his long company overcoat during the colder months, he had these amazing gold buttons or clasps that would run down the entire front.  Dad thought his uniform was really cool.

Dad never got his name, but he and his friends interacted with the firefighter enough to remember his voice and gait.  They talked to the firefighter in the street when they were pushing toy cars off of a stoop, playing sports or just sitting around enjoying a nice day.  When the man spoke to them, he came down to their level, never standing tall and hovering over them.  These interactions were never more than a few minutes at a time since he was heading to work.  Dad never saw him again after the age of ten or eleven, but he just assumed he retired.  The old firehouse was down around South 21st Street, and the man was always walking east from S. 17th St.  With all of the local grocers, churches, shoemakers, theaters, etc., people could live six short blocks from one another in 1950’s South Side and never meet.

Life went on.  After graduating high school in 1961 Dad worked in downtown Pittsburgh at a few places and then decided to join the United States Navy in mid-1960’s.  He came back home from the Navy in 1968 and continued living with his parents right off of the main street that runs through the South Side, East Carson Street.  After being in Hawaii for two years one would think Dad would complain about coming back to a congested house in a congested neighborhood, but the constant buzz of cars, trucks and trains twenty-four hours a day didn’t bother him since he grew up in that environment.

It was a Monday night in October, 1970.  Dad knew this because it was the first year ABC aired NFL’s Monday Night Football and he went out with a few friends to watch the game.  It was probably the fourth or fifth Monday game because Dad remembered wearing a light jacket that night.  The bar was on East Carson in between S. 14th and S. 15th Street.  After the game was over around midnight, Dad set off east toward home, which was between S. 18th and S. 19th Street.  The usual midnight buzz was around the neighborhood at the time, with trucks driving to and from the steel mills and workers walking to and from hospitals, steel mills and other jobs that required a nighttime presence.

Dad said it recently stopped raining that night when he set out for home, so a slight fog was in the air.  With no wind in the air, it made for a nice walk home despite the oncoming changing of the seasons.  He was walking alone because his other friends either stayed at the bar after the game, or lived in a different direction.  He couldn’t pinpoint the exact moment, but when Dad started walking down East Carson with his head down, he noticed everything was quiet.

The constant midnight buzz that I mentioned (and witnessed myself in early 1980’s) was silent.  Dad picked his head up to see no street traffic, no pedestrians, no sounds of trains, nothing.  Quiet.  Up ahead on the same side of the street, Dad saw a silhouette of a person coming toward him.  The wind suddenly picked up.  As the person got closer, it was clear that it was an older man in his sixties with unkempt silver hair and he was wearing a long overcoat that was unbuttoned and flapping in the wind. He had a hurried gait like he was walking urgently without having to run to his destination.

Right before they crossed paths, Dad looked at the man.  He looked familiar but he didn’t know why.  The man then said, “Good evening.”

Dad replied in the same fashion, and in the few seconds after this encounter he figured out how he knew this person–from the voice of the man.  It was the old firefighter from when he was a boy!  But there was so much that was different about him from what he remembered!  The voice was the same, but his hair was wildly out of control.  He had the overcoat with the gold buttons but it wasn’t neatly buttoned as it used to be.  The gait was the same, but the calm pace that the firefighter used to walk with was replaced with a pace of desperation.

Dad was also amazed that he didn’t age.  The firefighter should have been around eighty by now and he was walking very fast for a person that old.  When Dad turned around the catch up with the man, there was nobody there.  A few seconds prior, they crossed paths in the middle of a block and now, the mysterious man had vanished.  No businesses were open to enable a quick getaway off of the sidewalk and no apartment doors were nearby to quickly escape the cool weather.

While standing on the sidewalk in disbelief, Dad noticed that the wind that accompanied the man had dissipated, there was still fog outside (which didn’t make sense because the wind should have killed off the fog), people were walking all over the sidewalks again and all of the car, truck and train traffic had returned.

Dad continued to walk those same South Side streets until 1973 but he never saw the firefighter again.  He was never afraid during that strange encounter in 1970.  Dad felt that the firefighter wanted him to know that he remembered those innocent encounters years ago and was giving him a final goodbye before moving on.

October 1997: The Party At “Slim’s House”

Nineteen years ago this month I arguably had the strangest house party experience of my life and it had nothing to do with sex, drugs, beer, fire or some form of property damage.

There was this guy my friend Amy occasionally hung out with and my circle of friends knew him because he would occasionally pop in when my group would go out drinking.  I’ll call him “Slim” for this story.  Slim was a fat schmo who was arrogant, condescending, sloppy, cheap and a consistent jerk for no good reason.  I still remember Slim going out for chicken wings with us and always ordering french fries with a water.  I’m a “go big or go home” type of person when going out for food and drinks, so I thought he was an asshole just based on his food order.  I was never the sucker who would buy Slim a beer.

My friend Dave and I worked with Amy and she told us that we were invited to go a party at Slim’s house.  Apparently Slim had a new house and my cynical self was telling me that Slim wanted to show off his bachelor pad to EVERYBODY HE COULD because he wanted everyone to know who was boss even though he looked like total garbage.  How ironic.  Even though Dave and I couldn’t stand Slim, we agreed to make an appearance out of pure curiosity.  At least Slim would serve all the french fries and water we could eat and drink.

The party took place on a Friday night in mid-October.  I drove with Dave in his car and we got to Slim’s about an hour after the party started.  When we got inside we saw Amy, Slim, a few other friends of ours and about fifteen other people that I didn’t know.  The home was built in the 1950’s, a typical small suburban ranch house like many that were carved out in Pittsburgh’s south hills post World War II.  It was a good size for Slim but it was very small to house a family in.  The strange part about Slim’s house was the decor.  I didn’t ask, but most of the furniture was old.  Not retro chic old but 1970’s tacky old.  I assumed the furniture came with the sale of the house, so I grabbed a beer and hung out with Dave, Amy, Jill (from the “Rocker Girl” tale) and Jill’s boyfriend Jerry (whaa whaaaah).

About thirty minutes in, Dave and I overheard a conversation from a few guys that were coming up from the basement.  Apparently the basement was finished with a large television down there, and Slim had a Sony Playstation hooked up to it.  Some of the guys were taking turns playing Madden 98, which was and still is the best American football video game franchise produced.  Becoming bored with the conversations upstairs, we ducked out and descended the stairs to see if we could play a game against each other.

The room was simple but nice, with plenty of seating and good lighting.  There were four college age guys sitting around, two playing the game and two watching the game play.  Since the 1998 version was fairly new, Dave and I wanted to view the game even if we killed the vibe in the room.  Usually when guys get together to play video games everybody is loud and throwing snacks at each other.  These guys were quiet and calm while we sat around with them.

After the game was complete, we were asked by the four guys if we wanted to play since they were all heading back upstairs.  We agreed to take over the game and decided to play the longest amount of minutes per quarter since we were anticipating a few more people wanting a turn.  We wanted to get our thirty to forty minutes in and be done with it for the night.

About forty minutes later Dave and I completed our game, but there was nobody waiting to use the game console.  Having lost faith in the atmosphere upstairs at Slim’s, Dave and I fired up another game.  An hour (and a few beers) later, we apparently started to make a noticeable amount of noise.  In our eyes, Dave and I were just being typical twenty-one year old’s playing video games.  Slim came downstairs to see what the commotion was about.

“GUYS!  I don’t care if you play down here, but you have to be quiet.”

Dave and I looked at each other, confused.  I spoke up.

“Slim, what’s the big deal?  We’re just down here by ourselves playing Madden.  Why does anyone upstairs care about how much noise we are making down here?”

“Because my grandmother is sleeping in the other room.”  Slim points at a door on the other side of the basement.

Dave and I looked at each other again.  Dave had this look of both confusion and amazement  while I could not wipe the smirk off of my face.  I tactfully replied for the both of us.

“Oh, okay Slim.  Sorry, we didn’t know she was there.”

Slim went back upstairs, and we immediately started laughing uncontrollably.  Of course, we were laughing uncontrollably QUIET.  We finished our second game and went back upstairs.  We wanted to share the hilarious news that Slim’s grandma was sleeping in the basement, that it wasn’t Slim’s house and the party was lame, but we didn’t say anything to our friends until the next day.  Me, Dave and some twenty-five other people went to a house party…at Slim’s grandmother’s house.

So the revelation of Slim’s grandmother holed up in the basement confirmed why all of the old furniture looked like something my grandparents would have owned, why those four guys were acting so reserved in the basement and that Slim was indeed a poser.  He made it sound like the house was his, and we discovered the truth when we played drunken video games in his grandma’s basement.  I mean WHO THROWS A HOUSE PARTY IN THEIR GRANDMOTHER’S HOUSE!?!?!  Slim does.

Dave and I left the party pretty quick after our conversation with Slim.  We went to a local bar where a lot of jolly older guys hung out and told tall tales and laughed at each other for hours.  On this night we had our tall tale to share with them, and we didn’t disappoint them.  They never heard of anybody doing what Slim pulled that night.

 

 

“I’m home.”: An Alzheimer’s Tale

My wife will sometimes work with Alzheimer’s patients at her workplace.  She’s a physical therapist at a nursing home and she often dreads working with them since they are the most combative and non-compliant patients on her caseload.  She understands it’s part of the nature of her work, so she puts effort into being professional no matter how impossible a situation might be.

She has worked at a few different locations over the last eight years, one of which is close to our home.  This particular nursing home sits off the main road and is surrounded by acres of farmland on each side.  Up until three years ago the farm’s landowners grew corn in those two big fields.

One Saturday morning my wife gathered her caseload and noticed she had a new patient in one of the rooms.  “Betsy” was an old, frail silver-haired woman in her late 70’s.  She had been recently discharged from the hospital after a fall at her daughter’s house.  Betsy had moderate signs of Alzheimer’s disease and was in the nursing home to rehabilitate her broken arm.  My wife prepared her usual choice of words before entering Betsy’s room.

“Hi Betsy, how are you today?”

“I’m home.”

“Well, I’m here to help you get back home.  I’m here to help your arm get better.”

“I’m home.”

Not surprised by the answers she received, my wife simply continued with her assessment of Betsy and was shocked at how easy-going Betsy was for her condition.  Betsy complied with my wife’s requests and even said goodbye to her when she left the room.  Nurses and aides also commented on how pleasant Betsy acted despite having advanced dementia.

The following Saturday Betsy’s daughter stopped by to see how her mother was progressing.  My wife informed her that Betsy was doing very well and should be ready to come home soon.

“Betsy is doing great, but she keeps saying that she’s home.  When she says it, she’s always smiling and in good spirits.  Does she say this at your house as well?”

Betsy’s daughter was stunned to hear this news.

“I’m amazed she can tell that this is the location of the old family farm.  The only landmarks that have stayed the same since the 1950’s are the bends in the road, the tall trees in the front, the cornfields and the rusty old mailbox that is somehow still standing across the street from the nursing home.”

Betsy had an uncle and aunt that lived in the “country” (the property is only fifteen miles outside of central Pittsburgh) when she was a little girl growing up in the city of Pittsburgh during the 1940’s and early 1950’s.  They didn’t have any children, but during the summer months Betsy would come out to their farm house and stay with them, sometimes for a few months.  When the couple got older, they sold the property and the house was eventually torn down.  Betsy’s daughter remembers the stories her mother told her about staying on the farm and how much she enjoyed the visits some sixty to seventy years ago.

Obviously my wife was equally as stunned to hear the explanation as to why Betsy called this morbid environment “home”.  Betsy will probably end up as the best Alzheimer’s patient my wife will ever encounter in her caseloads.  She stayed for a total of three weeks, and went home to her daughter’s house.

Nursing homes are associated with illness, disability and the final chapter of one’s life.  Betsy’s stay in a nursing home was an opportunity to see a place that she longed to return to.  To the people around her, the residence was a three-story, three building campus set on twenty acres of land.  To Betsy, the residence was a one-story, four room house surrounded by cornfields along a dusty country road.  Betsy was home again.

The Fuel Pump: A sign from God in 2008

In April of 2008, my wife finished up the classroom portion of her doctorate in physical therapy.  We moved about 60 miles away from Pittsburgh for her to go to school while I found a job in the local town to help pay the bills.  When it was time for us to move back home, I had problems finding a full-time job.  This was due to the economy being sour at this time and my resume still having an address from 60 miles away.

I held on to my job far from home until I took a position with a fire protection company in the east suburbs of Pittsburgh.  I was just happy to find something local after driving 110 miles round-trip each time I had to work back in the town we temporarily moved to.  Gas prices at the time were an astonishing $4.00 a gallon and I put on a year’s worth of miles on my car in three months.  After paying bills, my net savings per month averaged a loss of $70.  I was putting $300 to $350 of gasoline into my car per month, so I was looking forward to saving money again.

An acquaintance named Tom was responsible for me landing this job.  He installed, repaired and replaced Ansul fire suppression systems that are attached to kitchen hoods.  I never held a job where I had to be capable of using a variety of tools, but in a few months I was able to complete tasks without too much supervision.  I was even allowed to take a work van home with me after 60 days of employment.

During the interview process I was told that the job would have a variety of hours since the company had to work around the needs of the client.  I was fine with that since I didn’t have any family obligations yet.  It was to be a standard 40-hour work week with occasional overtime, and 90% of the work would be within a 75-mile radius of Pittsburgh.

In the first two months, the job description stayed true to what I was told from the beginning.  I would work with Tom each day and on longer runs we would meet at a location and drive to a site in Tom’s work van.  I worked 40 hours a week and the only location that was beyond 75 miles was a diner in Moundsville, West Virginia.  If we completed a job out in the field, our boss “Steve” would inform us of our new job for the next day by 5 p.m. via cell phone.

Around the second week of September, the job took a drastic turn.  Steve would occasionally call me after 5 p.m. to inform me that there was no work for the next day.  The jobs that were supposed to be local became further away from Pittsburgh.  Four job sites were over 200 miles away.  One was outside of Philadelphia in West Grove, another site was north of Baltimore in Rising Sun, Maryland.  West Grove was 262 miles from my home, a six hour drive one way, five hours if I didn’t hit traffic or construction delays.  When Tom and I would take his work van on long runs like this, he had satellite radio.  When one of us would sleep in the passenger seat the driver always had something to listen to in the desolate Pennsylvania mountains.  We would drive out to the site, work four hours and drive back home.  The company would pay us both 16 hours a day each time we made these long trips, so we tried to work fast just so we could get back home at a reasonable time.

Since I was the new guy, I got the oldest work van.  It had all the basic accessories for a common work vehicle including the radio.  It had no compact disc player so when I got away from civilization, I had nothing to listen to while driving.  Using earbuds wasn’t an option since the van was very loud when driving on the highways.  I needed to hear traffic around me, especially when large trucks were recklessly speeding everywhere.

Occasionally Tom and I had to take both vans on long runs because we couldn’t smash all of our materials into one vehicle.  When driving in rural areas for long periods of time, I was alone with my thoughts while growing more frustrated with how this job was evolving.  At this point I started doing something that I never did before: I started talking out loud to nobody!

What I was actually doing was praying to God in the form of a normal (!) conversation.  I expressed my fears, hopes, gratitude and anger about what I was doing in that time of my life.  It became a form of meditation and it allowed for some self-analysis when cutting across the Appalachian Mountains.  My biggest fear concerning work was breaking down far away from home and not obtaining support from the home office.  After months of observing the lines of communication between different departments, I was sure to fend for myself if I encountered a problem on the road.

In the first week of November Tom and I had a job at a school cafeteria renovation in a town called Homer City.  It was a two day job and on the second day we completed everything by lunch, so we decided to head back to the main warehouse and re-stock our vans while we had some time to do it.  We got back to headquarters around 2 p.m., parked our vans and started refilling our supplies.

At about 3 p.m., we were ready to head home and I went to start my van…it wouldn’t kick over.  I tried a few more times and it wouldn’t start.  When I informed Steve of what was going on he told me to swap out my supplies and put them into a pickup truck they had sitting at the shop.  Steve accused me of not keeping enough fuel in the vehicle and causing the stall out.  I knew I kept enough fuel in that van, and I thought his finger-pointing was childish and what I call a “very dick move”.

When my van was towed to the repair shop the shop manager informed Steve that my fuel pump was shot.  In pure Steve form, he never apologized for placing the blame on me for the van failure when it was purely due to the age of the vehicle.  It had 113,000 miles on it at the time and most fuel pumps can freeze up at around 100,000 to 125,000 miles.

When fuel pumps die, they provide no warning of an impending failure.  After all of the long runs I took in that van at all hours of the day, for it to die RIGHT IN FRONT OF THE MAIN WAREHOUSE is remarkable.  I announced to God my fear of being stranded on the side of the road a few weeks prior, and at this moment in time the inevitable van failure occurred at home base.  It was God’s way of saying, “Hey Larry, I hear your concerns about the organizational structure at your current employer and I agree with you.  They will leave you stranded, but I will not.  I’ll make sure their ineptitude doesn’t affect your life in a negative way.”  I left that job in December for an office job.

Many people pray in a ritualistic manner but I prefer to keep my conversations with God informal.  Whatever angelic forces that are assigned to my case file, I thank you for listening to my one person talks over the last eight years.  I never intended to creep out all of you.

The Ghost Street of Clairton, Pennsylvania, USA

(BLOG NOTE: The Google mapping car drove up this road in 2007 when people still lived on it.  The car went back about 60 percent of the way until it had to turn around.  There are images on Google if you search the road in Clairton, with many of those photos being taken in 2012 and 2013.  Some of the photos were published in newspapers, trade publications, blogs and online portfolios. The road is now sealed off to motorists after a series of arson fires in 2015.)

In the summer of 2012, my brother Dan and I went golfing near his home in the South Hills of Pittsburgh.  After we played nine holes, we decided to get some lunch at a local place on state route 51.  In order to get there quick, Dan knew a few back roads via the small, tired mill town of Clairton, about 15 miles south of Pittsburgh.  After he crossed the bridge near the US Steel Clairton Works, he turned right and started north on state route 837.  About a quarter mile up the road on the left, I caught a glimpse of something improbable and apocalyptic: Lincoln Way, an accessible cul-de-sac, was left to rot.

Before I speak about the ghost street, some details involving the history of the region can assist in understanding the current fate of Lincoln Way:

During the height of Pittsburgh’s identity as a worldwide steel producer in the 1940’s and 1950’s, the region had 30 to 40 fully operational steel mills, depending on the year and how far you extended your radius from the inner city.  Most of the mills were situated along the three major rivers that run through the Pittsburgh region: The Ohio, Allegheny and Monongahela.  Most of the mills closed in the early 1980’s after foreign markets produced the same steel at a fraction of the cost, and due to the companies deciding not to upgrade their aging facilities.  Today, there are three mills in the Pittsburgh region, none of which are running at full capacity.  Clairton has one of these remaining mills, which continues to suffer job losses despite being one of the largest coke works in the United States.

It took a few decades, but some parts of the Pittsburgh region are doing well.  Unlike other large American cities who still suffer from the fallout of the manufacturing sector (i.e. Detroit, Cleveland, Buffalo), Pittsburgh reinvented itself as an innovative hub for engineering, robotics and medical research.  The central business district has low vacancy rates and new housing around the city has increased over the last decade.  The north and west suburbs are booming areas of the Pittsburgh region.  Many towns and townships in these regions of Pittsburgh have seen population gains of over 100% since 1990.

The south and east regions of Pittsburgh have not been as fortunate since 1990.  Steeped in the manufacturing industry, many towns that once thrived are now struggling.  Most of the steel mills closed down completely, but even other manufacturing businesses that survived the 1980’s have moved on from their roots.  Engineering superpower Westinghouse moved their world headquarters to the booming north suburb of Cranberry Township from their roots in Wilmerding, which is in the east hills.  Aluminum giant Alcoa has been operating their corporate offices in downtown Pittsburgh for many years, while their riverside production facilities in New Kensington continue to lie in ruin after they closed up decades ago.  In the case of both companies, they now operate production facilities in foreign countries.

The reason why many towns like Clairton went flat after the manufacturing jobs left town is because the land is so hard to redevelop.  The soil under the old facilities is polluted with toxic chemicals, which turns away potential investors to the south and east regions of Pittsburgh.  The north and west suburbs of Pittsburgh were farmland before land developers started transforming the properties.  It was more cost-effective to establish new industries in these markets.  Another issue is air pollution.  Since Clairton still has an operating steel mill, their air quality is always the worst in the Pittsburgh region.

I know ghost towns are not unique to the history of the U.S. (Or the world: entire cities in Syria are being wiped off the map due to war), but what is stunning about Lincoln Way in Clairton is how all of its 51 parcels of land go abandoned while the homes up on the hill via the next intersection down route 837 maintain a typical vacancy rate relative to the area.  Even the most distressed towns around Pittsburgh have at least a 75% occupancy rate.

There are tales of ghosts and a demon.  Tales of a great toxic event that forced residents out like Chernobyl in 1986.  But what really happened was a combination of jobs leaving town, people getting old, an increase in crime and descendants not wanting anything to do with the “zombie properties” of their relatives.

On the Allegheny County Assessment page, Lincoln Way has many property owners listed that have long been deceased.  The county only lists recent transactions on its website (My house has three since all of mine were done since 2007) and most of the parcels for Lincoln Way have a last transaction recorded between 1946 and 1981!  About 40 of the 51 parcels were supposed to be for homes, but as of 2012 there were only about 15 homes left standing.  Some of these 15 barely standing.

A few of the homes had everything in them from the last day it was occupied, so it would seem like a Chernobyl event happened there.  If that was the case, thousands of people would not be living in Clairton today.  These homes probably had one person living in it, and that one person died.  The owner either did not have someone to bequeath the property to or the bequest did not happen since the property would have become a burden on a relative.  After around 1986, it would have become more difficult to get a return on investment for a home in Clairton.  Tax collectors can’t collect from a dead person, so the deceased stay on the deed and the house lay in ruin.

In its heyday, Lincoln Way would have been an appealing place to live.  Its own little world tucked off the main road through the borough.  I imagined their little utopia to be like the town of Spectre from the film Big Fish, where the residents were all one big happy family.  Street festivals, music, food and optimism throughout the half mile of homes.  But when crime took over the borough after many of the jobs left town, being alone on a dead end street would be a scary situation, especially if there were not many people around to hear your screams.

When I encountered the street, it resembled many of the photos I saw published online in 2012.  There were about five homes that had a look of being occupied in 2010 or 2011, because they still had a clean look to them despite the overgrowth of weeds in the yard.  These homes looked to be in better shape than some occupied homes in my old neighborhood back in Pittsburgh.  I think that’s why I was curious about the street: How can these nice homes be left to die?

After assessing all of the facts I could find (For being a blogger; if I were a journalist I would have tried harder!), the stories I read and knowing the history of the region, Lincoln Way in Clairton, Pennsylvania is a lasting outward example of what many of us express when we are faced with a challenging time in our lives:  Sometimes you just have to pick up the pieces and move on.